Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Cross or Complex?

The Dysfunctional Family, the Co-Dependent Society, Addictions counseling, Individuation, Twelve step groups, Victim-hood….All these terms are popular today --and along with them support groups and alluring therapeutic philosophies. Are you involved in any? Are these appropriate for Catholics?

Phillip Rieff and William Kilpatrick, contemporary cultural critics, write pointedly that a therapeutic society is by its very nature a negation of the sacred order and is obsessed with self-fulfillment and self-realization-"religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased…and psychological therapies today are dominated by preoccupations that may be…anti-creedal." St Paul himself counsels: "Be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind in the Spirit" (Rm 12:2).

Just recently a new disorder was reported; and one in three persons allegedly have it-a kind of fixation complex. Sufferers not only emulate another person--usually a "star" or someone famous--but also imitate them.

Do people really spend their short time on Earth trying to be imitating another person--to the point of disorder? According to St. Augustine in his great work "The Confessions", the human spirit, is naturally inclined toward pursuit and imitation-of the good and beautiful. For instance, if we reject the natural pursuit and love of God, then we do not pursue other interests (i.e. happiness, achievement, etc.) which come from this primary, initial attraction. We need to put God first, everything and everyone else second: "Seek first the Kingdom of God…" (Mt. 6:33). If we don't put God first, then the result is disorder in ourselves and our pursuits. This disorder in man is sin. According to Archbishop Sheen, when Western society dropped this doctrine in the past century, lawyers picked it up and sin became crime. When they dropped it, psychologists picked it up and sin became a complex, a neurosis or psychosis. Sin became "watered down." The Cross's power becomes clouded out with a human complex.

This is a troubling phenomenon today: it seems religion is being "hijacked," misused by some, including those in the psychology and healing fields. Rieff writes: "The image of the ascetic… has been substituted (with) the image of the needy person, permanently engaged in the task of achieving a gorgeous variety of satisfactions." Therefore, "family dysfunctions" may end in divorce and individualism rather than more sacrifice; psychotherapy may lead to deeper selfishness; "victim hood" trumps virtues. What happens when we set our desires above God's desire- His Will--for our life? If a vertical line stands for the Will of God and a horizontal line represents our will, when we put them together, physically and spiritually we have a cross, but psychologically we have a complex. The Cross and a life of sacrifice becomes enemy to modernist notions of healing and self-fulfillment. Jesus counsels: "If you want to be My follower then you must deny yourself and pick up your cross daily" (Lk. 9:23).

In this case, sin is nothing more than disobedience--doing our will inconsistent with God's Will. Any sins we commit require forgiveness and expiation. For instance, say I command you "Take three steps to your right." You, having to do your will, disobey and take three steps to you left. Recognizing your mistake, you ask for forgiveness which I grant. But before you can begin to act rightly, where you once put your foot down in egotism, you must now put your foot down in humility and take three steps back to your left. Sin committed requires forgiveness and expiation. Are we asking for forgiveness? Are we atoning for our sins?

The above terms are important in our Faith-walks, and for that reason we need help in the confusion. However, selecting the right person(s) for this assistance can make all the difference in the world. For example: the way "addictions" is used today may take away personal responsibility; personal psychological disorders therapy may sometimes misuse drugs as remedies instead of Christian discipline; and homosexuality, which was once diagnosed as a disorder in the professional world (still heatedly debated among professionals) is being promoted as a healthy "alternative lifestyle" by those rooted in humanism. Aberrations become assimilations-- "embrace your dark side" or weaknesses. Christian spirituality does not conflict with psychological assistance. A balance between both Faith and reason is needed-just as valid science and religion, grace and nature go together--psychology harmonizes with Christ bringing healing and peace within. Jesus wants us to use basic, common sense--including valid psychology-to be free and faithful in Him.

There seem to be so many new syndromes and disorders today that it's hard to know which ones are for real-- to the point that some are describing our society (to name the book by Rieff) "The Triumph of the Therapeutic". He and others, notably Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz (and Pope John Paul, also) question unprincipled psychology, therapeutic trends and questionable healing methods which also may have an "agenda" (such as tolerating or promoting illicit behaviors). Vitz calls this contemporary error "selfism," and Christopher Lasch famously called it (to name his book) "The Culture of Narcissism." Rieff says that the psychological model of understanding has triumphed all other ways of understanding what a human being is. In the landmark book, "Psychology as Religion," Vitz writes: "Historically selfism derives from an explicitly anti-Christian humanism and its hostility to Christianity is a logical expression of its very different assumptions about the nature of the self, of the family, of love and of suffering."

Some common traits of humanistic psychology and "selfism" include: self-perpetuation: their methods exclude religion and revelation and tend to promote their own debatable analyses and cures, thus continuing a whole literary, monetary industry (look in any bookstore). Selfism attempts to "throw off the shackles of the old world way of thinking" of traditional religion. This propagates a cult of self, which revolves around personal fulfillment (i.e. new age), self-esteem (popular psychology), and individuation (Jungian)--to cater to American's endless quest for "wholism" and personal discovery. These methodologies are often unproven empirically or scientifically. Just as psychology is not an exact science itself, current psychologies speak about truths, but not about verifiable, whole truth.

Are Catholics exempt from this merely because we have the Bible and Divine revelation? Unfortunately not! William Kilpatrick, author of "Psychological Seduction," wrote several years ago: "the concepts of popular psychology are still being blended with Christian faith and confusions still abounds."

Everyone has troubles and needs some kind of "psychological advice". Realize: many of these psychologies have some valid points, and have aided people in many ways. However, we Americans can go overboard and crowd out the Cross with complexes; we may dissolve supernatural grace by professional expertise. A decade ago the rage was addictions, more recently it has become the dysfunctional family. Can you find a person who is not attached to something? Can you find a perfect family today?

Regarding dysfunctional families, it is only by understanding and imitating the qualities of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) that our families may become holy families. Unfortunately, secular psychology might encourage us to "be the best dysfunctional family we can be" rather than denounce our dysfunctional ways. For instance, the family members may be taught to accept their individual faults as normal rather than striving for community through humility, charity, and obedience. So, Yes, we should imitate some persons in life-especially holy ones! "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).

Phillip Maynard, a Baltimore Catholic and professional, was once excessively attached to alcohol. While recognizing the tremendous benefits of alcoholics anonymous (AA) and other twelve step programs, he found some limitations and deficiencies. When alcoholics see themselves as "powerless" over their struggles of drink, they "freeze" this idea and live by it alone: "I am an alcoholic…I am powerless…I am a victim," and thereby become passive in their healing and discipleship. We may think, conversely, though I am an American, I am a Roman Catholic first. My Faith-identity is my most important identity, and then other "identities" and forms of help are secondary.

Despite all the benefits of 12-Step programs, many can sometimes be anti-creedal, anti-religious; they can downplay the proper use of judgment in moral matters, and focus on a work-oriented righteousness rather than asking, humbly, for God's help

  • Dysfunctional: This grand generalization describes our imperfectness--that's why we need God! "All have sinned and are deprived of the Glory of God" (Rm 3:23). But, this term gets overextended and tends to analyze in a humanistic, horizontal fashion without "God's view" or the Bible's. This can become a kind of "psychological vicious circle" which perpetuates its own solutions without Faith. For Catholics the cures for dysfunctionalism is grace-"Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more" (Rm 5:20), and "become crucified to the world" (Gal. 6:14).
  • Addictions: It is true that we all have inordinate attachments to certain possessions, people, activities, sometimes even drugs. But, in the "triumph of the therapeutic" today, these "new addictions" may not always be proven, sound or constant with basic human psychology. Therefore, almost anything can become an addiction, canceling out my own free choice or free will; I become a victim, and may attribute false behaviors to it--the "addiction made me do it". St Paul observes, alternatively, "O wretch that I am, who can save me from this"…and then concludes: "thanks be to God thru Jesus Christ" (Rm 6:24-25). We need God and old-fashioned will power and grace to fight our attachments. We also need the objective (not humanistic) truth to know the way to liberation, "The Truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32).
  • Other Errors: Disorders-therapy and other philosophies can downplay supernatural revelation, biblical psychology, historical Christianity, and re-focus inordinate attachment to self-fulfillment, While including truths in their pursuit of Truth, they may sometimes downplay need for asceticism and legitimate authority, and the need of fortitude practicing the virtues to overcome deficiencies, instead of external aids.
  • Conclusion: Seek God's Will for your Life and live it. Pursue counsel from other holy persons, trained persons and professionals, priests in the know who are orthodox. Approach psychology with your Faith, Bible and Revelation. Always put Christ first-His morality, His revelation, His plan for you-then fit other things, healing therapies in with this….

And, as for that so-called new syndrome, imitationism (if that's what you call it)--come to think of it: yes, we Catholics are called to emulate and imitate Someone-Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior

Briefly Noted

Today, some people don't believe in demons or their effect on people. Jesus shows in the Gospel that He is the Master of all-even of unclean spirits. Pray for Him-and St Michael-- to purify you.

Grotto Story: Enjoying a lunch with some friends recently, a group of persons approached, with a baby seeking some help. I "winced" a little. Then I saw the baby and winced again. She had a tube in her nose, was blind, could not walk and lay motionless gazing into the sky. The mother asked me to bless the baby. I began praying and the mom immediately knelt in supplication, bowed to the ground, and began crying: her daughter was very sick-she wanted help amidst hopelessness and despair. The mom obviously appreciated, beyond words, the blessing. Perhaps she experienced a kind of healing by the Virgin Mary's help. Thank God for the Grotto, our Holy Faith and sacramental blessings.

Quote: "Every lover of God is the one and at rest and Godlike in the activity of love; for God, in His sublime nature of which we bear likeness dwells with enjoyment in eternal rest." Bl. Jan van Ruusbroeck

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi